(SNES / Super Nintendo)

Arcana (SNES / Super Nintendo)

Game Review

Arcana Review

USA USA Version

Posted by Damien McFerran

Magic is on the cards

FTL's seminal RPG Dungeon Master kick-started an entire genre when it was released at the tail-end of the '80s; the gaming public fell in love with the concept of immersive, first-person adventures and developers fell over themselves to replicate the same atmospheric feel witnessed in the Atari ST classic.

It wasn't just Western game designers who caught the first-person bug, though; their Japanese counterparts were similarly impressed with Dungeon Master's innovative viewpoint and quickly set about creating RPGs along the same lines – albeit with the traditional framework of turn-based combat. Sega's Shining in the Darkness on the Genesis/Mega Drive was one of the first and despite its myriad shortcomings managed to gain a sizeable following; it also gained imitators of its own, the most notable being HAL's Arcana, which was also known as The Card Master in its native Japan.

Arcana is essentially the game Shining in the Darkness should have been. The same gameplay remains in place: there's a central hub village where you can purchase weapons, stock up on items and save your progress. The individual dungeons are dotted around a world map, with each having to be tackled in sequence. Enemy encounters are random and come without warning, consisting of turn-based combat involving your team of adventurers and multiple foes.

Visually, Arcana is head and shoulders above Shining in the Darkness. The designers have used a Tarot theme and the majority of the characters and items in the game are represented as cards. This is initially jarring as sprites seem to float on the screen, disconnected with the world itself. However, as a visual device it's incredible effective, lending Arcana an aesthetic which pre-dates both the Pokémon and Magic the Gathering phenomenons.

The levels themselves showcase far more variety than those seen in Shining in the Darkness; instead of being exclusively confined to underground environments Arcana places you in ice palaces, forests and other locations. Although the general gameplay never changes, the graphical differences between these levels helps prevent things from becoming too stale, which is considerable risk when you take into account the rather repetitive nature of the dungeon-crawling adventuring.

The battle system doesn't offer up any massive shocks but the use of elemental attributes brings some welcome strategy to proceedings. It's the usual suspects – fire, wind, earth and water – but consideration must be taken before dashing into a battle situation. It's even possible to summon an elemental spirit to become a member of your party and fight on your behalf.

Despite its relatively straightforward and enjoyable RPG action, Arcana is almost infamous for its random bouts of astonishing unfairness. In other RPGs, it's only the death of the lead character that usually triggers a restart but in Arcana if any of your party bite the dust – with the exception of your currently equipped elemental spirit – you're unceremoniously dumped back to your last save. This problem is compounded by the generally harsh nature of the game's boss encounters, with almost every end-of-level guardian appearing without warning and requiring repeat visits before you finally have the knowledge (and experience) to make them succumb.

One of areas where Arcana really excels is music; the soundtrack to this game is simply fantastic. The SNES certainly isn't short of aural masterpieces but HAL's musicians have been able to make the hardware positively sing. The medieval tunes are a perfect fit for the fantasy action and the battle theme is particularly stirring, lending even the most minor of encounters with a sense of urgency and importance.

Like Shining in the Darkness, Arcana suffers due to its Japanese origins. Dungeon Master was refreshing because it offered tense real-time action; if you were attacked by a group of Chaos Knights then your natural reaction was to run away as quickly as possible and try to find a door you can hide behind or a stash of items or weapons with which to fight back with. However, because Arcana's enemies are never seen until you actually fight them, that sense of impending doom is lost. Also, the turn-based combat robs the game of tension, although it does of course transform it into a more methodical and tactical proposition.

It's perhaps best not to consider Arcana – or Shining in the Darkness, for that matter – to be a Japanese take on the Dungeon Master concept; in fact the only real link between the games is the perspective. Arcana is essentially a traditional Japanese turn-based RPG but viewed through the eyes of the protagonists rather than in the third person. When considered in these terms it's clear that the game is hugely enjoyable and incredibly well-realised; the levels are just long enough to present a challenge, the range of playable characters is pleasingly vast and the combat boasts an acceptable degree of depth. It's only the occasionally frustrating unfairness of the Game Over situations which present a real problem.


While it's unlikely to be considered as one of the format's finest RPG experiences, Arcana is unquestionably worthy of investigation if you're a fan of the genre but crave something a little more unique than the norm. Fans of Shining in the Darkness are likely to view the game as shameless plagiarism, but even they should be willing to admit that HAL's effort manages to outperform Sega's original in practically every department – although the game can be unduly harsh on the player at times.

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User Comments (21)



WolfRamHeart said:

I never played this game before but it looks very interesting. I hope that this will show up on the Virtual Console someday. I would really like to experience it for myself.



JamieO said:

Fair play, at first glance I would have taken this on face value to be a Japanese take on Dungeon Master, however @Damo's review reveals that this game takes its own approach. Its similarities to Shining in the Darkness, the fact that it was developed by HAL and its awesome music must have made quite a few SNES gamers pumped for this title back in the day.

I had never actually heard of Arcana before, I'm learning more about the SNES right here, so this is a great choice of retro review mate. Cool.



SwerdMurd said:

Unlike Shining in the Darkness--THERE'S A MAP. There's also slightly better battle mechanic balance....I prefer this game to Shining.

This game's music OWNS too. Amazing battle theme; awesome woods theme.



sillygostly said:

Wow. This looks really cool. I'm not the biggest fan of dungeon crawlers, however, I completely loved Orcs and Elves on DS, and I wouldn't mind trying this as well. Now if only I can snag a classic controller on the cheap... =P



Stuffgamer1 said:

I know my dad had this game a long time ago, but it seems to have gotten horribly lost in the mess we call our house. I tried searching for it extensively a while back, but I just couldn't find it.

Oh, well...I doubt it's as good as Etrian Odyssey, anyway. That's pretty much the only game in this genre I've ever really, really liked. And we're fortunate to have it be one of extremely few games Atlus made a series out of!



The_Fox said:

This is one of those love it or hate it games. I fall into the latter camp, but it seems to have a small following.



StarBoy91 said:

Good review, Damo, though it's two stars too low for me. I thought it was a 9. Oh, well, to each his own.
This was my first foray into first-person RPGs, and I've loved every second of it since I got it on July of '09. The soundtrack is fantastic, as you said. In fact, I'd say it's one of the best RPG soundtracks of all time (right up there with Chrono Trigger, Seiken Densetsu 2/Secret of Mana, and Breath of Fire: The Dragon Warrior to name a few). As Swerd_Murd says, the Forest of Doubt music is truly wonderful. The gameplay was fast and addicting, and I liked how there was an auto-mapping system. The Tarot card theme is amazingly original. The final boss encounter was truly epic, especially with the music that's playing in the background at that time. The ending song is one of the best I've heard from a video game (it certainly made up for the fact that the ending was lacking, which is probably the only thing I have wrong with the game). Jun Ishikawa and Hirokazo Ando sure know how to make awesome soundtracks.
Although, I fail to see how people would find this game hard. I actually thought it was easy; in the first playthrough I only got two Game Overs, and on the second playthrough I've done it all on one life. I also liked the constant random encounters; the bosses, however, are placed, and you won't know that until you step into position.
Also, this game was Kirby's very first appearance, but only as a cameo during the intro. This game came shortly before Kirby's Dream Land was released.
This game was never released in Europe, though I can sort of understand why (I can't imagine how this game would've run in 50Hz format).
Five chapters of brilliance. My second favorite RPG after SoulBlazer. I can't wait to try more first-person RPGs.



EdEN said:

And that cover is just too sexy for a SNES game. Remember seeing the original add on a magazine and wondering how Nintendo allowed for that.



StarBoy91 said:

Wanna know a secret? This game is one of the very few RPGs I've played which has a hidden Sound Test. To access the Sound Test, hold down the L and R shoulder buttons and press B on the title screen.
I just wish the music wouldn't start over after leaving a fight (whether it be by running away or by winning).



StarBoy91 said:

I can understand how you might think it's weird, Egg miester. But what's cool about first-person views is that you get to view the action from the eyes of the main character you're playing as.



EdEN said:

@Egg miester: FP RPGs usually suffer from not having a map (Shining in the Darkness is a great example of that) which brings down the experience.



StarBoy91 said:

@EdEN - well, fear not. 'cause, as I've mentioned before, Arcana has an auto-mapping system, so you don't have to worry about getting lost. You can check the map any time during the game, except if you're in a village or if you're in the middle of a battle.
This game is very obscure. More obscure than Kirby's Dream Land 3, and that game came out in 1997; Arcana came out in 1992. I'm talking SNES-wise here.
Also, the American box art for this game is miles better than the Japanese one, imo. It's not the best, but it's decent.



NeoShinobi said:

This looks like an okay game I guess, but I think i'll just stick to Shining in the Darkness for now.
Believe it or not, I actually like the fack that Shining lacks a map. Creating your own maps and notes for the game is part of what makes the game fun.
Though I can see how that wouldn't have a vary wide appeal.



CanisWolfred said:


Yeah, I don't mind the lack of a map, either. Of course, I have a good visual memory, so I don't tend to get lost much anyways, unless the place is such a complex labrynth that I couldn't even navigate it if I did have a map (some of the dungeons in Phantasy Star come to mind).

Granted, I always liked Shining in the Darkness more because I just preferred the style of the game. It was just a much more charming and memorable game, IMO.



ueI said:

I thought Phantasy Star was a pretty easy game, but that's only because I had a map the whole time, and access to the internet.



StarBoy91 said:

I'm glad this game was reviewed by someone that liked the game.
Anyway, the Tarot card concept is incredibly original. It's amazing how the characters and chests, except for Empress Rimsala's second form, are all represented by Tarot cards. It makes them stand out. And I've gotta say: the game looks really good on my widescreen HDTV.
This is also one early SNES turn-based RPG where the monsters and bosses actually have animation.

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